To keep your children safe in the real world, you’ve taught them how to act in public — even when you’re not with them. Now that they will be online more, it’s equally important to teach your children about online safety and how to stay safe in the virtual world.

For starters, it’s essential for your children to be cautious, to learn how to figure out whether or not people on the internet are authentic and trustworthy, and to know that they can come to you if they suspect something — anything — is wrong.

7 tips for keeping your child safe online

  1. Heed the U.S. Surgeon General’s warning about social media

    “We have to now take action to make sure that we are protecting our kids,” U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy cautioned on NBC News, citing research linking social media to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, addiction, self-harm, insomnia, and bullying. A 2023 advisory report titled “Social Media and Youth Mental Health“, states that social media presents “a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being” of adolescents. Murthy suggests a few strategies to help parents, including:

    • Create a family media plan with rules limiting social media use at home.
    • Establish tech-free zones in your home.
    • Help your children to balance their social life between online interactions and multiple in-person playdates, meet-ups, or hangouts.
    • Give your children a screen time curfew that starts one hour before bedtime and, ideally, keeps their devices out of their bedroom all night to safeguard healthy sleep habits.
    • Keep family meals and gatherings device-free to encourage face-to-face conversation. (Note: this can often be most difficult for the parents.)
    • Set a good example by modeling healthy social media habits, including not spending too much time on social media, prioritizing in-person interactions, and reminding your children that people typically only post the highlights of their week on social media.
    • Tell your children to report cyberbullying, online abuse, or exploitation to you, the school counselor or principal, the online platform, or local law enforcement.
    • Collaborate with other parents to establish similar practices.

    The report also urges teaching tweens and teens to protect themselves and others by, for example, blocking unwanted contacts and reaching out for help if they or someone they know is negatively affected by social media in any way.

    Related: Read GreatSchools’ Parenting Cue Card “My child looks at media online that I consider inappropriate.”

  2. Teach your children that not everyone online is honest or trustworthy.

    Make sure your children understand that people they meet online may not be who they seem. Explain how the nature of the internet makes it easy for people to portray themselves in ways that don’t reflect reality — and why this can be dangerous. A worrisome example is an adult who uses online connections to establish trust with a child as a way of encouraging that child to meet him or her in person. Or a classmate might pretend to be a child’s friend online, only to bully that child later. These are concerning behaviors that your child should be warned about. Remind your child that you are always there to help them figure things out, even if that means logging off for a while till you have time to look into it together.

  3. Tell your child not to disclose information that is too personal.

    This includes your child’s name, phone number, and address. Less obvious but equally dangerous information to share includes online passwords, their school name and location, events your child will attend, and times when your child is alone (e.g., walking to and from school). Even photographs your child posts online should not contain personally identifying clues (e.g., the name of the school in the background).

    It is especially important to help your children have strategies to protect themselves when they are engaged in fun, lively, and direct interactions with other people online. A child needs to understand that even if they are on a friend’s personal feed or posting to a site intended only for their classmates, other people may still see your child’s information.

  4. Use tech-tools to monitor your child’s online activity.

    There are several apps that monitor content on your family devices. Top-ranked is Bark, which offers a phone with parental controls built in or comes as an app you can install on any device. This tech-savvy tool sends you alerts for potential dangers, like cyberbullying and sexual content, plus it filters content, manages screen time, and tracks locations. There are options for monitoring phones, TVs, and even gaming consoles, and you can start with a free 7 day trial. Aura offers similar controls as well as a free family device contract. The Norton Family Premier Parental Control App has great reviews, though the social media monitoring is less robust.

  5. Create clear family rules.

    Have a family meeting about internet use. Discuss all the ways you use the internet as a family and make a list of all the sites you each visit regularly. Discuss reasonable time limits and practices. Together as a family, write down the rules for using the computer, social media, and other sites and post them in a visible place. Make sure to discuss online safety and have your children share examples of when they or others felt safe or unsafe online and what happened. As your children grow up and use different sites, add regular-use sites to the list, revise time limits, discuss safety protocols, and update the family rules.

  6. Keep the computer in the family room, kitchen, or living room — not in your child’s bedroom.

    If your children know you are observing them — or you could walk by at any time — they may be less tempted to engage in risky or inappropriate behavior online. It also helps your child understand that what they do online may seem private, but it is not: everything posted, shared, and liked online is public.

  7. Find ways for your child to use the computer and phones on your terms.

    If you aren’t comfortable with your child using the internet at home when you’re not there, find acceptable alternatives, such as arranging for your child to go online at the school library. Make this part of your family rules and use tech tools to monitor the use of concerning sites.

    In all of your online safety discussions, remember to make it clear to your children that you love and trust them. Remind your children that too many people use the internet to cause harm to others, and you are just doing what you can, together, to keep your family safe.